Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The 1935 Bismarck All-Stars ndstudies; Bismarck Tribune, August 9, 1935)

"It was in Bismarck, N.D.  There was a white man out there named Neil Churchill who liked baseball.  He was an auto distributor and he wanted a ball team for Bismarck.  He was fulla ambition for baseball for his town. . . . He gave me three autos.
In [1935] Churchill got a team together and that's my team of all-stars.  Never was such a team.  Man, couldn't beat that team.  Hit and field and, boy, did we have the pitchers.  We was a mixed team, colored and white.

We won the first Wichita semi-pro tournament and they barred us from playing.  No mixed teams.  Why, we was just too good, that's all.  But nobody paid no attention to us when we went into that National Tournament, but did we wallop 'em all.  Nobody could touch us.  And boy did them Bismarck people like us.  Those farmers that were our fans came to town with hats full of money to bet on us

That was the best team I ever saw; the best players I ever played with.  But who ever heard of them?"
- - Satchel Paige, from the Chicago Daily News, 6/18/43 (via North Dakota Integrated Baseball History)

Prior to 1947, organized professional baseball in the 20th century (both major and minor league) was segregated, leading to the formation of several Negro baseball leagues (for more see Forgotten Americans: Cumberland Posey Jr & Sr).  But during this same period there were some integrated teams at the semi-pro level (paid ballplayers on teams that arranged games among themselves outside of a formal league structure), particularly in Minnesota and North Dakota.  The best of these teams was the 1935 Bismarck team.  Though occasionally referred to as the "Churchills" after the team owner and manager, the team had no formal nickname and was often called simply The Bismarcks in the local papers.

As you can see from the picture above, the team was fully integrated with the core squad of six black and five white players.  The black players included three all-time greats from the Negro Leagues, Satchel Page, Hilton Smith and Theodore Roosevelt "Double Duty" Radcliffe, the first two of whom are in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Satchel Paige (standing, center in the photo), arguably the greatest Negro League pitcher, was the team's star attraction.  He'd pitched briefly for the Bismarcks in 1933 but in 1935 they had him for the entire season.  Paige was maybe baseball's first true free agent.  Because he drew both whites and blacks he was able to cut his own, very lucrative, deal with teams and jump from team to team throughout his career.  His stint with the Bismarcks was no different.  He'd start and pitch a complete game every four or five days but would pitch one or two innings in most of the other games.  At one point, the Bismarcks played 32 games in 27 days and he pitched in all of them.  He usually received a salary plus a share of the gate.  For more about his remarkable, and long, career (he last pitched in the majors in 1965 at the age of 59, throwing three innings of shutout ball) see the post Don't Look Back.

Hilton Smith (standing, far left in the photo) was for long stretches Paige's teammate and fellow pitcher on the Kansas City Monarchs.  As quiet and reserved as Paige was colorful and flamboyant (his antics were resented by many Negro League players) he labored in Satchel's shadow even though many thought he was as good, or better, as a pitcher.  From 1939 to 1942 he posted records of 25-2, 21-3 25-1 and 22-5 and Bill James rated him as the best Negro Leagues pitcher in three seasons.

Double Duty Radcliffe (standing, far right in the photo) was both a pitcher and catcher, hence the nickname bestowed upon him by Damon Runyon, (for more on Runyon see Lessons In Anti-Trust Law - yes, that is correct) and played (and sometimes managed) in the Negro Leagues from 1928 through 1954, dying at the age of 103 in 2005. 

The other black players were:

 Quincy Troppe, a catcher who played in the Negro Leagues from 1932 to 1949.  He briefly played in the major leagues with the Cleveland Indians as a 39-year old rookie in 1952.  On May 3 he teamed with pitcher Sam "Toothpick" Jones to form the first all-black battery in American League history.  Troppe's son became a professor at the University of California and biographer of Miles Davis.

Barney Morris and Red Haley who had briefer careers in the Negro Leagues.

The star white player was Vernon "Moose" Johnson who Churchill hired away from the Sioux City club of the Single A Western League where he'd hit 24 home runs in 235 at bats.  Moose had astonishing power.  The problem was he drank heavily and keeping him sober was a big challenge.  In the photo at top, Moose is just to the right of Satchel Paige.  What is unusual for that time is that Moose's hand is resting on Satchel's shoulder showing a degree of comradeship across racial lines that was rarely displayed publicly.  After hitting 25 home runs in 192 at bats for Bismarck, Vernon went back to the minor leagues after the '35 season ending his professional career in 1944.

The other white players were Don Oberholzer, Joe Desiderato (an outstanding batsman), Al Leary and Ed Hendee.

THC has been unable to find reliable season records for the team and players but suffice it to say they won a lot and lost infrequently but the pitchblack baseball website has a wonderful summary with plenty of highlights and hijinks featured.

The climax of the season occurred in mid-August when the Bismarcks participated in the first National Semipro Championship tournament held in Wichita, Kansas, a tournament that continues to this day under the name of the National Baseball Congress Tournament.  The great Honus Wagner was guest of honor for the event and joined Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson on the rules committee.  Thirty two teams participated and the Bismarcks won the trophy sweeping all seven games they played.  Satchel Paige appeared in five games, winning four and striking out 60, a tourney record that still stands.  For the season it is reported that Paige's record was 30-2 while pitching 331 innings.
(from pitchblack baseball)


  1. I love this. So glad you sent me the blog. A remarkable story I've not read before.

  2. THIS is awesome. My stepdad has been playing and umpiring baseball in and around Bismarck since the late 1950s ... he grew up out in Stanton by the Garrison Dam in the 1940s. I'm DEFINITELY going to send to him; he's spending his upcoming 80th birthday on June 3 umpiring two American Legion games!!! He's quite a guy - this is an awesome story.\